Remember Ronald Reagan and his tall tales about “welfare queens”? Reagan despised public assistance for the needy, and he loved to tell outrageous stories about people who were allegedly abusing the system. Somehow, these fables of his always featured people who were the stereotypical embodiment of his audiences’ worst fears and prejudices. For instance, take his 1976 campaign trail comments about a woman “from the South Side of Chicago”:

“She has eighty names, thirty addresses, twelve Social Security cards and is collecting veteran’s benefits on four non-existing deceased husbands. And she is collecting Social Security on her cards. She’s got Medicaid, getting food stamps, and she is collecting welfare under each of her names. Her tax-free cash income is over $150,000.”

The race-baiting and wild exaggeration sound fairly transparent, right? And given what we know about Reagan’s chronic propensity to abuse the truth — remember his bizarre claim that he helped liberate Nazi death camps? — we can safely assume the Gipper’s overactive imagination was at work once again. Certainly, that’s what many commenters have long assumed.

Only, as Slate’s Josh Levin reported last week in in this amazing piece, Reagan turned out to be right. What he said was literally correct and was based on reports published in the Chicago Tribune at the time. (For comparison’s sake, $150,000 in 1976 dollars was quite a substantial chunk of change — worth over $600,000 today).

But while Reagan was technically correct, this obscures much larger truths about welfare fraud in general, and about this case in particular. Before I continue this post, I want to strongly urge that you read Levin’s article, which is a masterful piece of long-form journalism. Part of what makes it such a great read is Levin’s skill in gradually unraveling a compelling mystery, and I don’t want to ruin that. In other words, the rest of this piece will consist of spoilers galore, so considered yourself forewarned.

Are we good? Okay, then let’s move on.

It turns out that the “welfare queen” Reagan was referring to was a woman known as Linda Taylor. Throughout her criminal career, she used dozens of aliases, but that was the name she was known by during her trial for welfare fraud in the mid-70s, so that is the name with which Levin identifies her in his article.

The first major surprise about Taylor is that, contrary to myth, she was white. Taylor was a lifelong con woman who was said to be a master of disguise. Her appearance was racially ambiguous, she had relationships with white men as well as men of color, and at various times she posed as being various races. But on her birth certificate, she is recorded as white, and most family members believed her to be white.

The second surprise is that Taylor was far from being an ordinary, if unusually successful, grifter. She was, in fact, a master criminal and user and abuser of human beings, a monstrous sociopath who was guilty of murder, kidnapping, and (almost certainly) the selling of babies on the black market. She inspired terror in people — the many crazy things she was involved in include voodoo — and Levin, in researching the story, found people who, even today, were afraid to talk, fearing Taylor’s wrath. (In fact, she’s been dead for many years).

The most troubling aspect of the story is that, as Levin reports, a cop named Jack Sherwin was on to Taylor and wanted desperately to complete an investigation of all her crimes — including the murder and baby-selling allegations — before charging her with anything. But the media got a hold of the welfare fraud story, and because of public hysteria at the time about the supposed epidemic of welfare abuse, there was strong political pressure to bring her up on those charges right away. Taylor’s trial for welfare fraud proceeded apace.

That trial, plus difficult bureaucratic issues within the police department (Sherwin’s investigation was complex and involved several divisions and jurisdictions), ended up calling a halt to the larger investigation into Taylor’s more significant crimes. She did a few years for welfare fraud, then moved to other states, where, once again, she became involved in shady activities and was linked to a couple of suspicious deaths. However, she was never charged with any additional crimes. She died in 2002.

Conservatives have gleefully seized upon this story as proof that their hero, Ronald Reagan, somehow “was right.” But either they didn’t read the whole story, or they did but they entirely missed the point. It would hardly be the first time.

Let’s review. Yes, in the mid-1970s, there was a Chicago woman who really existed who was guilty of massive welfare fraud.

However, Linda Taylor was by no means typical of anything in particular. The wingnuts love to scream about welfare fraud and pretend that vast sums of money can be saved by rooting out “fraud and abuse.” But in fact, there really isn’t that much fraud and abuse in the welfare system, and most of the fraud that exists is committed by program administrators. Crusades to root out “fraud” usually end up doing just one thing: slashing benefits for needy families. That’s certainly what happened in the 70s and 80s.

Secondly, Linda Taylor was by no means your “typical” welfare cheat. She was a sociopathic monster who stole babies from their parents, abused children (there’s one heart-rending anecdote of a little boy Taylor was caring for subsisting on dog biscuits), and killed people. The decision to succumb to public hysteria about welfare fraud and prosecute Taylor for those crimes, rather than the more serious ones, came with a terrible cost. As Levin writes:

If Linda Taylor had been seen as a suspect rather than a scapegoat, lives may have been saved. Prosecutors have great discretion in choosing what cases to bring—that’s how the rate of welfare indictments could shoot up so dramatically in a single decade. When politicians and journalists whip the public into a frenzy about welfare fraud, the limitations of municipal budgets and judicial resources dictate that less attention be paid to everything else. Linda Taylor’s story shows that there are real costs associated with this kind of panic, a moral climate in which stealing welfare money takes precedence over kidnapping and homicide.

In order to allay an ugly, racist moral panic about mostly nonexistent welfare fraud, a profoundly evil woman was allowed to get away with multiple counts of murder, kidnapping, and child abuse — and went on to commit even more crimes. That’s the real lesson of Levin’s extraordinary piece. Leave it to the wingnuts to try to turn this strange and deeply troubling story into one more petty “gotcha” game in their never-ending war against liberals.

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Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee